Russia’s Cynical Foreign Policy Play

Peter Pomerantsev on Russia’s foreign-policy objectives.

Sasha Mordovets/Getty

The G20 meeting in St. Petersburg last week was full of Cold War melodrama, frosty stares, and bitter asides: Russian President Vladimir Putin facing down President Obama; Putin teasing British Prime Minister David Cameron; Putin smiling yet snarling at France’s President François Hollande.

But is Russia really slipping back into “Cold War thinking,” as Obama said on Jay Leno, aiming, in the words of Hillary Clinton, “to re-Sovietize Central Asia and Eastern Europe,” or is it trying to play a much more slippery, and very 21st-century game?

The political personality of 21st-century Russian power can be summed up in a phrase one hears continually from Russian elites: “everything is PR.” Russia’s domestic politics are built on a willfully hostile reading of democracy, an attitude that says democracy everywhere is a sham, so why shouldn’t ours be too? This attitude of triumphant cynicism has resulted in the creation of what one can call a “liquid,” or “post-modern” dictatorship: a new type of totalitarian regime that doesn’t invent its own models and narratives (as the USSR once did) but instead converts all the trappings of democratic capitalism to serve totalitarian ends. So Russia has (rigged) elections. But their point is to show how strong Putin is rather than engender competition. Russia has some pockets of free media: but they are ultimately controlled by state players and are framed in such a way as to strengthen the center.

The great advantage of this regime is that it can co-opt any potential opposition narratives: so when hundreds of thousands protest against corruption on Moscow’s streets, the Kremlin quickly puts on a new mask and itself becomes the great fighter against corruption. When nationalists protest about illegal migrants, the Kremlin quickly moves from being a champion of Imperialist multi-ethnicity to a zealous defender of “Russia for Russians.”

The Kremlin can be a modernizer in the morning to a religious fanatic in the afternoon—whatever suits its most immediate need. To use a cinematic metaphor, the Kremlin has gone from being the USSR’s bulky Terminator One to the endlessly shape-shifting Terminator Two. But all the complex role-playing of liquid dictatorship masks a much more brutal reality where Russia’s true “shareholders,” the small circle of men whose competing interests Putin has to manage, cut up, and siphon off Russia’s wealth.

We can see a similar liquid approach in Russia’s foreign-policy pronouncements: a few years ago Russia’s foreign ministry was telling the world that Russia was following a European path; today it says Russia is a bastion of Orthodoxy against a godless West. But neither position should be taken seriously.

For all the talk of rebuilding a neo-Soviet space, the Kremlin elites are not obsessed with taking over former vassals such as Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan. Their vision is firmly fixed on the pipelines and oil price that define their wealth and the off-shore zones through which they can move it.

Currently, as much as 36 percent of the EU’s oil and gas is imported from Russia. When you talk to Russian foreign-policy insiders it is the fear of Qatar building a gas pipeline to Europe through a post-Assad Syria that informs Russia’s support of the regime in Damascus. But by placing so much weight on energy as a source of its wealth and power, the Kremlin may have miscalculated. With shale gas now setting the agenda, the profits of Gazprom, Russia’s state gas company, have tumbled. Moreover an EU investigation into monopolizing practices by Gazprom may force the Kremlin to review its whole energy strategy.

According to the Russian Central Bank, some $50 billion is taken out of the country each year, much of it via offshore tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands or Cyprus. Cyprus is a good example by which to understand Russia’s foreign-policy priorities. During a recent financial crisis, the Cypriot government looked to bail itself out by offering Russia a Cypriot gas field, which would, in turn, have given Russia great political control over the island, including the possibility of a warm-water port. During the Cold War the USSR would have jumped at the chance. But the new Russia refused: it is more interested in Cyprus as money-laundering center firmly within EU institutions than a geopolitical pawn.

After passing through places such as Cyprus, the money is then welcomed with open arms in London, Frankfurt, and the world’s other financial capitals, which means that, rather than standing up to Russian corruption, the West actually aids and abets it. In the short term it might seem like easy money for the cash-strapped West. But, in the long term, it opens the door for that very Russian mix of state, business, and organized crime that has earned the country the nickname “mafia state.”

On the eve of the international summit, Alexander Lebedev, one of the few oligarchs who openly spars with Putin, called for the world’s leading economies to start tackling global corruption. If the West was really to do so, the Kremlin elite and its liquid dictatorship would be seriously threatened. As it was, the G20 conversation was dominated by Syria. And Putin, to his great delight, got to revel in imitating a Cold War giant.